Typical dishes in each country: How easy is it to eat gluten-free in South America?
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If you’re gluten intolerant or coeliac, unfortunately compared to developed regions such as North America and Europe, it can sometimes be pretty difficult to maintain a diet that is gluten-free in South America.
However, it must be said that some of the more affluent capital cities are beginning to catch on; much of this can be considered down to influence from tourists – catering for gluten-free diets is both a way to open up to those who have dietary requirements and to demonstrate how hipster you are to those who are willing to pay higher prices for an instagrammable lunch. Cities that offer the most to people who are gluten-free in South America are Bogotá, Lima, Buenos Aires and Santiago.
And while supermarkets in lots of these countries have a gluten-free aisle (also, Chile supermarkets are especially good at catering to dairy-free diets, if that’s also of interest to you), in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia you will struggle to find anything in the average supermarket that is specifically labelled as gluten-free.
Understanding of gluten-free in South America is low
Outside the average metropolis, finding gluten-free foods gets difficult mainly because people have little understanding of what gluten intolerance is. In certain Latin countries where poverty means some people struggle just to eat, food intolerances are understandably given little airtime. Asking for options that are gluten-free in South America at a local restaurant will probably be met with confusion, laughter, nods of understanding, and then a meal served full of gluten anyway.
…But many dishes are already gluten-free in South America!
What’s promising though is that in some regions, the typical dishes are often free from gluten anyway. Lots of the Northern countries of South America have historically used corn instead of wheat, so with a little caution there are always options to be found. Here’s a very brief breakdown of what to expect from typical foods in each South American country; below you’ll find some useful phrases in Spanish for gluten intolerant or coeliac people to say.
Typical food in Uruguay:
Avoid ordering a milanesa in Uruguay, as this is just a breaded meat schnitzel, and unfortunately, empanadas are off the menu for you. However, they tend to serve steak and rice with zero dressing (we weren’t so impressed with Uruguayan cuisine…) so you don’t have to worry about catching gluten in any sauces. Another classic Uruguayan meal is the chivito; a giant 8-12 layer burger filled with meats, chips and salad. Although this usually comes with bread, there is often the option to have it ‘a la plancha’, which would remove the bun. Uruguay is one of the few countries that seems to understand gluten, so in a restaurant you can always give ‘sin gluten’ or ‘sin trigo’ a whirl and see what they say. Here’s a more in-depth analysis of eating gluten-free in Uruguay (sorry, I’ve been mega lazy with the others).
Typical food in Argentina:
It should actually be quite easy to get by with Argentina’s famous asado. Basically BBQ’ed meats often served with chips, salad and rice, an asado will rarely come with anything that may contain gluten. Argentinians find steaks so sacred that they will rarely season it with anything other than salt, either (words cannot describe the skill of these people at the helm of a BBQ). Buenos Aires is one of the most likely cities to host gluten-free specific cafés or mainstream restaurants that mark GF on the menu. It’s the only place I’ve ever seen McDonald’s offer gluten-free bread buns for their burgers.
Typical food in Brazil:
The OTHER kings and queens of BBQ, this time under the name of ‘churrasco’. Some meats are breaded, but for the most part you’re fine with a Brazilian churrasco just being seasoned with salt and maybe garlic. Regional differences in food are much more obvious in Brazil, with the south having a more German influence with their breaded schnitzel-type milanesas, and the north being predominantly meat, rice and beans. You should be safe ordering grilled meat as part of a set meal, and surprisingly you can actually eat the worryingly-flour-looking farofa side which is usually made from cornflour or yuca/cassava. Please just check before eating it that it hasn’t been fluffed up with wheat flour. Unfortunately a lot of the snacks, such as coxinhas, are off limits for you, but granola-free açaí is always a good idea!
Typical food in Chile:
Chile loves a good bit of bread. Choripan and completo, two dishes that are essentially just a hot dog, are everywhere in Chile (though choripan is also found in places elsewhere in the South), as is churrasco, which is basically just a slab of meat served with and rice or chips. Milanesas (breaded meat patties) and empanadas are also popular here which need to be avoided. However, you are in luck, as Pastel de Choclo is a casserole-style meat dish made out of corn pastry. And if you ever find yourself in Valparaíso, be sure to book yourself a few nights at Costa Azul B&B, where they cook you gluten-free pancakes with manjar caramel spread and fresh fruit for breakfast. Insaaaaaaaane!
Typical food in Bolivia:
Being the least affluent country, Bolivia is also the one with the least varied meal options. Although bread is a staple due to its cheapness, a normal menú del día lunch or dinner will consist of a roasted chicken breast, plain rice and a handful of vegetables with a soup starter. Bolivians tend to use corn before they use wheat, however you need to be careful of any soup that you are given, as they like to pad soup out using wheat berries/kernels. This ingredient is rarely called out on a menu (if there even is a written menu), so always ask if you can, and if you see anything called ‘sopa de trigo’, definitely avoid. Menú del días are usually excellent value, with 2 good sized portions costing 10Bs or £1, so you won’t go hungry nor feel ripped off if you turn down the first course. Milanesas in Bolivia tend to be battered with egg rather than breadcrumbs, but that’s something you’ll need to check first.
Peru is one of the most varied places to eat, with lots of influence from China and Japan on the menu. Not only are there Chinese restaurants (known as Chifas) everywhere, but you’ll also see typical Chinese dishes with a Peruvian twist on menus in local restaurants. You can still get your simple meat, rice and salad combo here, but be careful of stews or anything with a sauce as these may contain flour to thicken them. Fish is everywhere is Peru, and usually grilled or in sushi form rather than battered – but the real speciality is ceviche. This is safe for you, because it’s just made of raw fish, onions, ginger, garlic and a few other vegetables, all ‘cooked’ using the acidity of lemon juice and served up after a quick mix around.
Typical food in Ecuador:
Land of the lentils and beans! With every plate in Ecuador, expect a lump of meat, ladle of rice and any gaps in your plate to be filled up with yummy lentils (lentejas) or beans (frijoles), in a common style known as menestra. These should generally be safe, though check for sauces on the meat (rare but it does get served with a thick sauce from time to time). It’s usual in Ecuador and Colombia to be served a grilled banana or plantain with your meal – nice and filling for those of us who couldn’t eat the table bread!
Typical food in Colombia:
The best thing about Colombia is the wealth of fruit, often available to pick up from a street stall. Things you must try include mango ceviche (mango served up with lemon juice, salt and a drizzle of honey) and dragon fruit (the sweetest thing ever, but it will send you to the toilet if you eat too much!). The eighth wonder of the world is indisputably the Colombian arepa. Meat-and-guac-filled goodness, these are made using corn flour, and so are safe for you to devour. Worth checking with the street stall owner that it is in fact made with ‘harina de maiz’ and not ‘harina de trigo’, though, as less traditional recipes may have crept in. Another safe food in Colombia is tamal, a meat and rice dish wrapped tightly in leaves and steamed for a few hours. Not everyone likes the taste, but you can’t deny they’re filling!
Handy Spanish words and phrases for someone who needs to eat gluten-free in South America:
If you’re not good with Spanish pronunciation, try printing out a few slips of paper with some of these phrases on to make sure you’re understood. This guide to the Spanish alphabet will help you say the words correctly!
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